Notre Dame on Good Friday

When the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral went up in flames this week I thought immediately of the book I’ve been reading in the evenings for the past few weeks, J.W. Mackail’s Life of William Morris. Morris was obsessed with Medieval architecture and visited Notre Dame and many other French churches on a trip in 1855. Later in his life Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (which still exists) as a response to the poorly considered renovations of Medieval buildings that grew out, ironically, of a Gothic revival movement during the Victorian era.

Morris’ believed that historical buildings should be kept in good repair and stabilized. As the University of Maryland describes his philosophy,

While the Gothic Revival drew renewed interest to the medieval aesthetic, some architects sought to restore old buildings to an ideal state by removing original detail and adding new construction- trends Ruskin and Morris both found troubling. Morris championed an alternative building preservation model based on retaining all surviving building fabric, no matter how flawed by the passage of time, while employing minimal, non-intrusive reinforcement of the existing infrastructure to prevent future damage. He coined the name, “Anti-Scrape Society” for the SPAB, a humorous shorthand that embodied his philosophy of honoring the artisans who constructed old buildings by preserving their work without alteration.

He would not have liked the 19th century spire that collapsed in the fire this week nor many of the other alterations that took place to Notre Dame in that period. I’m sure he’d also be worried about Macron and his fashion billionaire friends who have some alarming restoration notions. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail. Thankfully, Morris’ forward thinking ideas have become mainstream in the restoration world.

Ship of Theseus

The tragedy of this fire is also a reminder, as Nassim Taleb pointed out, that all building restoration efforts bring up an old philosophical paradox known as the Ship of Theseus. This thought experiment asks the question “If, during a journey, I replace all the planks of a ship do I arrive at my destination on the same ship or a different ship?” Anyone who has worked on an old building faces this weird ontological conundrum all the time. And the law can make this abstract thought experiment a confusing reality. Keep one wall of a building and a municipality will deem what is in reality an entirely new house a cheaper to permit remodeling. This can get absurd as in the flipper palace under construction in my neighborhood, seen in the photo above. It would have made for a much more interesting building had they kept that old wall rather than removing it as soon as the inspectors left.

Part of Morris’ philosophy is keeping earlier modifications intact so as to show the passage of time. Paradoxically that would mean leaving the surviving 19th century modifications to Notre Dame that he, no doubt, hated. Notre Dame has been altered and wrecked so many times that Ship of Theseus questions about how to fix the current damage will provide years of difficult architectural conundrums.

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  1. An interesting book that deals with how buildings change over time is “How Buildings Learn” by Stewart Brand.

    We live in a 1925 Arts and Crafts bungalow that was hideously “modernized” in the 1960’s. Although we now deplore the work that was done and are attempting to restore the house, I am not at all sure that, in the 1960’s, I would not have enthusiastically joined the “chainsaw and stucco” brigade and done exactly what the owners did then although, hopefully, using better materials and craftsmanship.

    Each generation seems to have its own idea of what historical buildings should have looked like. In the Victorian era, the idea was that the interior of cathedrals should be pure, clean masonry whereas the originals were probably covered in huge, gaudy paintings informing the largely illiterate congregation of the joys of heaven and the horrors of hell and how it was a very good idea to do exactly what the priests told them to do.

    • The thing I remember most about that Brand book is the chapter on maintenance, specifically how we’re all pretty bad at it.

  2. We were very lucky. Our hundred year old Australian weatherboard Federation house never had people with enough money in it to go bonkers with ill thought renovations. That said, it was listing 10cm to the north (and had 100 year old wiring but never mind) which made it easy to remove the old horsehair and lathe to retrofit with insulation and drywall. I still hated seeing the old work pulled out because it had been done so well. Benefits to heating and cooling have been massive, but I tip my bonnet to the workers of old. As a side note, there’s a trend here of sticking super modern extensions on the back of old houses. Big corrugated steel boxes on the back of traditional houses. Looks ridiculous. Old WM would’ve had fun with that. Ship of Theseus + mutant

    • Thank you for causing me to Google “Federation House.” I’ve seen images of these types of building but now have a word for them. Glad yours escaped “remodeling.”

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